by Gary Soroka
October 13, 2016
The European Union is supposed to cushion its members against shocks but, as the bad events of the past year piled up, it was the EU itself which seemed to flounder. Strong leadership is needed, but that is in short supply; Britain is gone and France is weakened and unsure of itself. That leaves Germany, but the country has been rattled as a number of political certainties seemed to crumble before its eyes.
The refugee crisis has dominated the news. When Chancellor Merkel announced last year that Germany would take those who came, it was greeted with pride. The warm feelings soon gave way to anxiety, as the flows became a tsunami and the country was overwhelmed. Most of Europe offered more hostility than help despite German pleas for a show of solidarity. Merkel has always been known for her analytic detachment, incrementalism, and full command of her files and emotions. Suddenly, with virtually no preparation, she acted on the basis of deep moral conviction. It may have been admirable, but it has cost her dearly; she is no longer the Chancellor in full command. For the first time in her career, she is taking heavy political fire from her own party, coalition partners and a newly successful far right.
Then came the Brexit, the result that everyone said would not happen. In Germany, there was sadness to be sure but mostly anger, with calls to get on with the divorce immediately. The tone has moderated, but the government is clear that out means out. There will be no free trade agreement with Britain unless they also accept the right of EU citizens to live and work in the UK. There is no desire to “punish” Britain but, equally, there is no readiness to make special concessions, not least because they would only strengthen anti-EU movements in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
In Germany as well: the alarming electoral success of the explicitly anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) in five German state elections has broken post-war German political taboos. Open nationalism and xenophobia have now entered the political debate. The great majority of Germans still support generally centrist and leftist parties, but the conversation has changed.
The situation cannot be allowed to drift. An EU Leaders Summit in September (without the British PM) said very little about the Brexit but, instead, talked of the need to reconnect Europeans with the EU. It was notably short on specifics. An EU of concentric circles, with different levels of integration, may be the best solution, but it would be exceedingly hard to negotiate, requiring a degree of honesty about member state’s capabilities and aspirations that most leaders would probably want to avoid.
Outside the EU, Russia is proving intransigent if not openly hostile on most issues and Putin is doing his best to undermine European stability by providing political and financial support to right -wing anti-EU groups. In Turkey, the attempted coup was bad but the over-zealous repression that has followed bodes ill for the future relationship with Europe. Both countries are unavoidable and essential partners so German politicians try to soldier on against the odds. Add to this the prospect of a Trump presidency in the USA, and German leaders find themselves in what seems like a cautionary tale out of the Brothers Grimm.
German leadership is critical in Europe and the challenges are daunting but, in recent years, Germany has assumed new responsibilities with a confidence unimaginable only a few years ago. No one should underestimate what they can achieve.
In 1976, Gary Soroka joined the Department of External Affairs and held a number of positions in Ottawa and at Canadian missions abroad. He spent most of his career as a specialist in the area of foreign policy before retiring in 2009. He is currently a Fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.